Technically Jochen Mass might have retired, but he still drives in rallies and races all over the world, often in his role as brand ambassador for Mercedes-Benz. The Mille Miglia seems to have become a particular favourite of his, and he has driven the great Italian rally more than 20 times – including in a 300 SLR and a 300 SL. In this interview he tells us what keeps bringing him back to this legendary classic car event.
Q: When many motorsports fans hear your name, the first thing they think of is your victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The original Mille Miglia was also all about stamina and perseverance, but just how similar are the two races?
You have to look at that question through racing goggles. In Le Mans I had to drive fast for 24 hours, maintaining maximum concentration as lap after lap went by. In the Mille Miglia there were other problems to cope with. You have to drive as fast as you can, but always think about the safety of your co-pilot. The co-pilots instructions were of course very important, so it’s good to have a tried-and-tested team. In some ways the Mille Miglia was more difficult than the 24 Hours of Le Mans, even though the cars didn’t go so fast, of course. The nature of the route itself made it a very exciting experience.
Drivers needed a car that could cope with the challenges – good brakes and good handling were absolutely essential. If your car was a little sensitive, if it was difficult to drive when you pushed it hard or if the brakes weren’t so robust, then you had a very difficult hand to play. But if you had the best car, you could drive faster. Which explains how Stirling Moss set the record. He drove fantastically, had a wonderful understanding with his co-pilot Jenkinson and, on top of this, came up with a very clever invention: all the navigation notes were written on a roll of toilet paper that was kept in a box so Jenkinson could simply scroll through them. The whole thing was protected under glass. It was a wonderful idea.
Q: Like Le Mans, the Mille Miglia attracts a fantastic audience.
It’s got a lot to do with history. People who were growing up back then are obviously a lot older now, but during today’s Mille Miglia they can see and hear the sights and sounds of their youth passing in front of them… a magical window on their younger days. The people’s enthusiasm is genuine: otherwise they wouldn’t be standing around waiting until after midnight, even in bad weather. It’s clear that the race really is in the Italians’ blood.
Q: You’ve taken part in the Historico more than 20 times; you must have some interesting stories…
During the 1990s my wife and I were driving through a high valley somewhere in the Apennines. We came across a Franciscan monk in a brown habit with a white belt around his stomach. He was standing in a field beneath the only tree in sight. He heard us coming and not only ran, but sprinted to the road – and he was a very portly monk. He lost his sandals on the way and waved and waved, and was clearly very happy to see us. These are the kind of images that stay with you. But of course there are many others…
It’s always a fantastic experience to drive down to the square in Siena. There are now more tourists there of course, so it is more like driving through a guard of honour. It’s great that the race is so well received in Europe.
Q: As a Mercedes brand ambassador you have had many opportunities to drive some real rarities – the 300 SLR, and before that one of the legendary supercharged “Kompressor” models.
Yes, I’ve driven them all, including the 180 and 220 Pontons. It’s always a wonderful experience. And a privilege for me. I’m honoured to have these opportunities and flattered that people trust me to get the cars through safely. Thankfully it’s always gone OK so far.
Q: You’ve raced in rallies, Formula 1, touring car races and many other competitions. It seems that it doesn’t take you long to get used to different cars.
Of course. You just need to have the right basic attitude to the cars you are driving. Like aeroplanes, every car has a zone within which I can control it safely. I have to be able to sense and experience exactly where this zone begins and ends. Then it’s really not so difficult, as long as you have a certain sensitivity. I think I’ve been very lucky because right from the start I seem to have had a talent for getting on very well with any car of any type. I’ve driven in truck races, Indiecars, Nascars, Formula 1…. You have to get to know the car and listen to what it’s whispering to you…
The cars I’m driving now are worth a crazy amount of money, so even when I’m going fast I ensure there is a relatively large safety margin. Ultimately the golden rule is never to lose respect for the vehicle or for the event.
Q: Is there a Mille Miglia car that you particularly like?
Of course. I really like the SLR. Why? Because its performance is unbelievable and it is great to drive. But the one I like driving most of all is the SSK, because it’s the one that gives you the most back. It takes a fair amount of physical strength to drive, and you have to be very careful with the gears … But I love the car. If you can drive it well over the whole 1600 km, you feel great; it’s a wonderful experience. This is the car I like best for the Mille Miglia. Q: Do you already know which car you’ll be driving this year? I still don’t know for sure yet, but it will probably be a 300SL Gullwing.
Q: To digress for a moment: The Concours on Amelia Island last year paid special tribute to you. What was that like?
It was fantastic. I was so proud that they made me an Honoree. It puts me in with a very illustrious group of drivers. They found the cars that have been important to my career and drove them across the golf course for me: from the GTA to the Ford Capris and all the Porsches and Mercedes – and the car I won Le-Mans in – they were all there. Even a Chevron. That was the first sports car I drove in South Africa in 1971 in the Springbok series. And I drove the McLaren M23 Formula 1 around the golf course. They put on a brilliant show.
Q: So half your racing life went past you!
Yes indeed. And they put on seminars and discussions too. I really enjoyed it, including all the chats with various people in the evening. It was a great occasion and I hope to be there again next year.
Q: What have the other highlights been for you this year?
I am particularly looking forward to the Goodwood Festival of Speed and the Revival. Before that I’m going to Pebble Beach. The Schloss Dyck event near Dusseldorf will be good, with some interesting cars and people. Oh, and we’ll be taking part in the Eifelrennen too. I’ll probably be able to drive the SSK again in that. At the end of the year we’ll go over to the USA again for the Historic Sportscar Racing Series in Daytona. I might be driving the Le Mans Classic with the lead singer of AC/DC as well. He’s a funny guy.